There isn't a deliberate link between the recent debates around artists making a living and my selling the 100th performance of The Price of Everything on eBay
. We've actually been planning it for a while. There isn't a deliberate link between that debate and this online auction, but there is a link. What I'm doing is an explicit engagement with the market and an acceptance of the financial value it chooses to put upon my work. Some might see it as a satirical response to how poorly artists are paid. Others might call it bowing to the inevitable. The uncharitable might imagine I hope to make a packet. (Above costs, it's going to charity.)
In conversation with a friend last night I expressed a slight unease that, although selling a show in this way might draw attention to market forces in the arts, might even satirise them a bit, and might well draw attention to the fact that the market value of our work is unlikely to sustain even a modest living, it does nothing to suggest a move beyond that market. A fundamentally unproductive irony. He said that he thought selling the show on eBay was a work of art in itself. That was nice of him, but it doesn't assuage my unease. We are, have allowed ourselves to be, part of a marketplace.
The normal economic model for The Price of Everything
is that venues pay £450 plus travel and accommodation. They take the risk and it's their responsibility to ensure an audience. We are extremely happy to help in any way we can, but it's their venue, their audience.
In total this arrangement means venues paying around £500-600 depending on how far I have to travel and how cheap the chain hotels are there. Of that payment, I get a fee, my producers get a fee, some money goes towards marketing, some towards admin costs. Some is spent on milk. I don't know the exact numbers - that's the beauty of having a producer - but I do know that my fee is £300. That fee recognises that I can't take much other work either the day of the show, or the day after the show, and that I might well spend a bit of time in the weeks before and after it engaged in admin, re-rehearsal, tech conversations, that sort of thing. Oh, and in every show I give £20 to an audience member - whether my fee is £300 or nothing. On performing the 100th show I'll have given away two thousand quid.
At the time of writing, the auction is at £82. This fee is inclusive of travel and accommodation, so unless the winning bidder happens to be somewhere very convenient, it's almost certain to run at a loss. That's alright, by the way. There's a tiny reserve in the budget which means that although I won't make anything from this show, I won't actually be out of pocket.
If the winning bid does cover costs, then any profit will go to a charity agreed between me and the buyer.
Secretly, I'd really like it to get to three figures. Secretly, I think it probably will. It'll need to get to about £150 to definitely cover costs, and that would be great too. £150 is either fifteen people clubbing together at about the normal price, or a tremendous bargain for a venue (who can then sell tickets and turn a profit, if they're that way inclined). I suspect it's already the latter and although there are about 20 people "watching" the auction, since £50 there have only been three different bidders.
If every performance of The Price of Everything
had sold for £150, I'd have done an awful lot of work for no money whatsoever. If every performance had sold at full price then by performance 99 (Brighton, next week) I'd have made £29700 - minus the two grand I've given away - over the past two and a half years. The truth is, over those two and a half years, I've made more like £18-20000. For a start, 32 of those shows were on the Edinburgh Fringe. And lots of venues negotiated us down.
That's still a lot of money to earn from one show.
It's also a long way short of a living over those two years.
I have other projects, though. How to Occupy an Oil Rig
and Story Hunt
both pay me a weekly fee, of around £500 (a little less in the former case, a little more in the latter). If I earned that every week of the year without holidays
, I'd earn £26k. Four weeks' holiday would make it £24k. Less than the UK mean, more than the median. A solid living.
But barely anybody is able to make money from this every day of the year
, and this, I think is one of the key things that's been missing from this debate. Almost every actor works in a bar or on a temp job for the 95% of the time when they're not acting. Neither Rufus Norris nor Dominic Cooke made a living from directing until they were well into their thirties. I don't think we think less of any of these people for that.
And if you think making money in theatre is hard, you should try being a poet. I believe three of those make a living. One of them just died.
I don't think any of us went into this to make money. I don't think many of us went into it expecting
to make money. If we get to do this and people want to see it and
we make some money, that's a huge bonus. But if you make art because you think it will make you money, you cease to be an artist. None of us are entitled to make a living.
None of us are entitled to make a living from this, and so plenty of us do something else to make a living at all. I have a part-time job as a lecturer in theatre at the University of Bedfordshire. Jack Bennett, who's in How to Occupy an Oil Rig
with me, works in a post room. He's been on at the National and he's been on in the West End and he works in a post room. That doesn't devalue his other work, it doesn't make him more or less of an actor. That's just how this works. I don't think this is the fault of the fees venues pay. They'd have to pay us a lot more per show for us to make our living from this all year round. Or we'd have to be touring 100% of the whole time.
One of the first things we have to acknowledge in working through this problem is that an artist with a day job isn't less of an artist. I once went into Tennent's Bar in Glasgow just after watching an episode of The Thick of It,
and there was one of the stars, pulling pints. The last time I'd seen him was in a lead at the Traverse.
For as long as we pretend that having a day job makes you less of an artist, we're going to keep accidentally only hiring people who can afford not to have a day job, to save us all embarrassment. I've actually got no problem with working unpaid if it's something I believe in for an organisation it will benefit, so long as the requirements of the unpaid work don't incidentally prevent me from earning a living alongside it. But production companies won't make "profit" share shows by rehearsing evenings and weekends, because it makes them look amateur. If they're not paying anything, what does "professional" mean anymore? According to this model, it means, "in possession of a private income and parents with a London address".
Just because you're not being paid, doesn't mean the work isn't any good. Just because you are being paid, doesn't mean it is. If you're doing this to make money, you're not an artist, you're an entrepreneur.
Obviously I'd prefer if we could all be paid handsomely. The reasons we aren't go beyond negotiations over fees.
It isn't just the arts. In my HE capacity I spent yesterday on strike over pay and pensions. As an artist, I think my part-time HE salary a princely sum, but I can see why colleagues are alarmed at the trend represented by a 13% real-terms pay cut over eight years, and what that means for recruitment in years to come. When scholarly research and teaching becomes as precarious a vocation as being an artist, then we'll be in real trouble.
It's not just the arts, and it's not just HE. The museums sector is in the same boat. Not to mention schoolteachers, nurses, librarians. They're all being screwed by the government, by the current financial model. Everything I value is being devalued, to express which sentiment, the only words I have are words drawn from the language of economic value. It would be nice to think that we were suffering from a sectoral problem that could be solved by better conversations with each other. Better conversations, more understanding will help, but this isn't a sectoral problem. It's capitalism. This is how it works. And when it takes things away from us, we blame each other. Divide and rule. Survival of the fittest.
Well, I don't like that and I don't think we have to operate that way,
It would be great if we all got paid handsomely. I'd like to live in a society that values artists as highly as teachers. I'd like to live in a society that values artists as highly as surgeons. I'd like to live in a society that values artists more
highly than bankers. Actually, I'd like to live in a society where there's no such thing as bankers.
I'd like to live in a society where the value placed on artists derives from something more than what they are paid. I'd like to live in a society where we all got paid handsomely, and where the concept of money is a faintly-remembered and ludicrous aberration, like shellsuits, or Kajagoogoo.
I live here.
Here, theatre venues are not to blame for the value placed on artists. It's the market. We've spent the last three years railing against the Government for their persistent drip-bleed of arts funding. It seems absurd that, as soon as those cuts start to bite, we rail against someone else whose funding is being cut. We need to work with them to fix the problem.
We've been trying to make this case to the Government, but we've also been trying to make the case to the public. And if we can't explain to the public why theatres are important as well as hospitals and SureStart centures and libraries, it's hardly surprising that the Government can get away with cutting it. And if the funding is cut, there's less to go round.* It's a bit bigger than artists vs venues.
I do feel uncomfortable with venues who have teams of producers and marketing and administration, all salaried, asking artists to work for next to nothing. Fellow artists: we shouldn't tour to those venues. Usually, I won't take a profit share gig because it's too big of a risk. But it's not as simple as hard economic facts: sometimes I trust the venue to get me an audience, or I know I've got an audience in that city, or I'd just like to go because I've never been and I'm free that weekend and so it seems worth going there on a split.
But for any venue taking the piss, there are a dozen working incredibly hard at audience development. This is more important than artist development, because however good the performance it'll sink if there's no-one there to see it.
No artist deserves
an audience, no show is entitled to be seen. Reviews on the Edinburgh Fringe and in London don't necessarily mean anything to an audience in Stockton or Barnsley or Bradford. Nor should they. Those places aren't cultural backwaters if they don't know about my show's awards. Those awards are invariably given to people a long way away from Stockton, and Barnsley and Bradford, and frankly under those circumstances it's a lot of effort to pay attention to such things. That all three of these towns and many, many more have terrific venues, brimful of terrific work is down the extraordinary efforts of their terrific programmers. And if I have an audience for my show when I get there, it's because the conversation they're already having with that audience drew me in. It didn't start with my show, and it won't end with it.
It's amazing how tied some places are to conventional models for this conversation, which is then not a conversation at all. "Would you like to come? £10 please" is most of it. But £10 is a lot of money and if you put too much effort into persuading me to part with it, I just get suspicious that what you're selling isn't any good.
Sometimes, when The Price of Everything
is selling poorly in advance, we manage to persuade the venue to have a go at pay-what-you-can, or pay-what-you-think-it-was-worth. I did three shows in Dorset last month that had sold very poorly in advance and all three venues agreed to give this a go. On average, sales increased by over 400%. Average yield was higher
than the price originally advertised. We're taking a risk with our money, the venues said. Will you take a risk with an hour of your time? It's not a great deal more meaningful as conversations go, but it's a sight better than begging.
We are learning that the ways we've been trying to talk to audiences in recent years have not been working. We're learning new ways of talking to them. Theatres do not thrive in a market economy and so we need to find ways of behaving as though we are somewhere else. Of behaving as though we're individuals talking to one another within a community, rather than as market nodes seeking to maximise our human capital. I'd like to run a venue where every show is pay what you can. I'd like to run a venue where you can pay in doing the plumbing, or the dishes. I'd like to run a venue where every show is part of an ongoing conversation about the world and about art, and that conversation is happening town-wide.
That doesn't happen overnight.
But it seems to me just possible that if we keep getting better at talking to audiences, then audiences will keep growing. And then they'll talk to government for us. And when taxpayers demand the government spend their money on the arts, rather than demanding that they don't, then arts funding will increase. And then we might all earn a better living. If that's what we really want.
It seems to me just possible.
In the meantime, though, The Price of Everything
is available to buy at auction until Sunday evening, 7pm. At a price to be determined by the market.
* (It is, as an aside, a bit absurd that artists are paid to tour work and venues are also paid to receive that touring work. It's easy for both to assume that the other will pick up the slack in their funding, which is why Andy Field's argument for transparency is so important. Which which in mind: I received a grant to make The Price of Everything
more than two years ago, since which time it has been funded entirely by fees and box office. How to Occupy an Oil Rig
is funded to the end of the forthcoming spring tour but the model is such that, should we decide to re-tour, we can afford to do so on a fee of £950, wages of £450 + per diems for me, Jack and Kathryn, and 3.6 shows per week, with no further investment. Story Hunt
was funded by ACE this year, but the subsequent versions next year will be paid for by the host venues.)
In football it has been conventional for all defensive marking to be done on a man-to-man system. More recently, influenced by continental trends, several British teams have begun experimenting with a zonal marking system.
Whenever a mistake is made in a man-to-man marking system, the commentator will say something like this:
"He's lost his man there."
Whenever a mistake is made in a zonal marking system, the commentator will say something like this:
"Zonal marking doesn't work."
For ten marks, please use this construction to create an analogy for the discussion of theatrical experiment in our culture.
No, actually, one mark.
As a longstanding advocate
of a more engaged dialogue between makers of and writers about theatre, there's an obvious hypocrisy in my writing a blog post under the above title. But here it is: I went through the entire Edinburgh Fringe this year without reading the reviews of my show. (I should point out before I go on that I've read them now.)
When making a show, I gradually reveal the contents of the inside of my head to an ever-widening circle of people. Lots of these people will tell me what they think about the direction the work is heading. All of these people matter. But I just can't listen to them all.
There's a large group of people, the audience, whom en masse I trust more than anyone. Moment to moment, it's abundantly clear whether what I'm doing is working for them. But if I ask ten of them about any given moment that didn't quite work today, I'll get ten different answers. They don't know where I want to go with the work; they just know what they saw.
There's a very small group of people I really trust and I listen to them very carefully. These people constitute the team working on the show and maybe three or four others who know me and my work well enough to say what they think in a way that's sympathetic to my direction of travel. Their diagnoses about what's not quite working and how to make it work are the ones I weigh very carefully.
The critics are disguised as members of the former group and sound like members of the latter. But they're not regular audience members; nor do they often behave as such. And they have no responsibility to you or your show. This doesn't mean they're wrong, or right; it just means that there's a point early in the development of a show where they won't be helpful. Nor should they be; that's not their job.
When I'm getting the hang of a new show, I don't want too many voices in my head telling me what it is and how it works, much less what it should be and how it could work. Not before I know myself. (By getting the hang of a show, I mean knowing it well enough not only to get right the words and the moves and the rhythms and so on, but also knowing, at any given moment, the function of this in the whole: how it contributes to the overall journey, movement, or argument.)
It takes a monumental amount of time for me to get the hang of a show in this sense; perhaps I never do. In the case of How to Occupy an Oil Rig
I'd say I could have happily read the reviews by the last week of the festival; that's after about a dozen performances. With The Price of Everything
it was probably more like fifteen, but I'd already done most of those by the time I turned up in Edinburgh. It takes this long because in doing the show enough times to gain a superficial level of control over it, it becomes clear that certain small or not-so-small moments don't quite contribute to the overall journey, movement, or argument. It becomes clear, that is, that there's something in the dramaturgy which doesn't quite click.
So the last thing I want is someone from outside of that relationship between me and the audience, someone with no responsibility to that relationship, putting pressure on elements of that dramaturgy when it may not sustain it. This can result from a rave as much as from a bashing: high praise for wringing out a particular emotional response at a particular moment can go to one's head, and it may be that that's in fact the precise moment where some wider problem means that I need to stop trying to wring out that response.
This is why I never quite
get the hang of any given show. Its dramaturgy can be attended to on increasingly infinitessimally small levels, such that there's always a new problem to fix. The work on How to Occupy an Oil Rig
is still at levels far from the infinitessimal This, fortunately, is also why I'm yet to get bored of any of my shows.
Of course, there are plenty of reviews, and plenty of reviewers, whose writing will help, not hinder this process. And there are plenty of makers who are perfectly able to filter out what's useful from what's not. For me, though, an ability to distinguish the signal from the noise doesn't begin to prevent the noise from being distracting. Also, I can do without the preoccupation about whether other people think the show's any good when I'm still figuring out, good or bad, how it works.
But there comes a time when the show, and my intentions in it, are secure enough to read the reviews and engage in that critical dialogue. Then you get very pleasant surprises like this one
, a review that not only describes exactly what I was trying to do, inside a pretty tight word count, but is absolutely lovely with it.
Honestly, though, it's not the reviews I was talking about when advocating greater dialogue between writers and makers. It's the whole discourse around the art form. And I can't engage meaningfully with that unless I've engaged meaningfully with my own process first. Otherwise I'll bring nothing to that dialogue other than a series of half-digested remnants of things other people said about my show. And nobody wants that.
It was a big, busy festival for me this year one that would be impossible to sum up in even as bloated a blog post as yesterday's. How to Occupy an Oil Rig
was the new show, but for a substantial chunk of the festival it was neither the first nor the last thing I performed on any given day. All of which is a short way of saying, here are a few more thoughts on this year's Festival. The Price of Everything
came back for the second half of the festival as part of the British Council showcase, and after the excitement and the adjustments and the learning curve of figuring out how to perform How to Occupy an Oil Rig
, it like was sliding into a familiar pair of slippers. It's never easy performing solo for an hour, and the show always differs slightly from day to day as I figure out how to perform to this
audience, here, now, rather than the one that saw it yesterday or last week or the one I imagined when I was first rehearsing it two years ago now. And with the combined weight of eighty-plus performances behind me, finding it anew does get tougher. So I'd thought maintaining the spark of life in it for twelve consecutive performances in the same space might be a challenge. Actually, it was as comfortable and enjoyable as it's ever been, relaxed, responsive, but with that crackle of excitement that's only possible when everyone - me included - senses the possibility of something genuinely unexpected.
It's too early to say whether the British Council showcase is going to lead to extensive international touring for the show. I do hope so, because I'm running out of venues in the UK and I'd like to keep going with it. And also: INTERNATIONAL TOURING! COOL! It'll be the 100th performance of the show at the end of this year - for which watch this space for an EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT - and I've no intention of being like one of those batsmen who, having made his century, gets out cheaply through inattention or a misplaced sense of satiation. I'm going for a daddy
. There'll come a time when I have to stop doing the show, certainly. When the current economic settlement becomes the previous economic settlement, for example. When our culture re-evaluates its relationship to capital. In the meantime, Alex Kelly, who's my lodestar in most things, is doing The Lad Lit Project
at a festival next week eight years after its first Edinburgh run. That's good enough for me.
Doing The Price of Everything
at 10.30 in the morning enforced a regime of sensible behaviour and early bedtimes on me that undoubtedly provides the reason I survived the festival. Performing two shows (that and Oil Rig
) before lunch exacts physical and mental rigours, but it's still less time on stage than even a heavily edited Hamlet
. Nevertheless, early nights, limited booze and healthy eating were essential.
The third show I was involved in this year, The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project
, put paid to all that, and I wouldn't have changed it for a second. That I was booked to be there eight times and was actually there nearly twice that is testament to the joyous, warm, ramshackle embrace of it all. I just genuinely couldn't think of a room I'd rather have been in, and on any given night of the festival if I wasn't sound asleep there I was, on stage for a third time that day, long past my bedtime. The show won the Spirit of the Fringe
award at the final fringe first ceremony and totally deserved to. (I am of course
judging on the basis of nights where I was in the audience rather than on stage. Stop looking at me like that.)
For those who have no idea what it was, a bit of background: The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project
split into two main parts. For the first part, six artists - Cora Bisset, me, Lucy Ellinson, Kieran Hurley, Alex Kelly and Chris Thorpe - were commissioned to make a 15-minute piece that responded to the idea of border balladry. For the second, each night a different guest artist added a new stanza to an epic ballad telling the tale of a foundling babe found in a moses basket floating down the Tweed on the night of the dissolution of the act of union. By the last night, this was nearly an hour long. There was also a lot of singalong. Clear? Of course not. It wasn't that kind of show.
I don't know about you, but my first reaction on seeing the list of people I'd been commissioned alongside was to think what that fuck am I doing here?
And obviously, Northern Stage being a Newcastle theatre, I'm the token northeasterner. But however you find your way into such stellar company, once you're there you try to make it count.
So where any functionality in the dramaturgy of How to Occupy an Oil Rig
owes an immeasurable debt to Sarah Punshon, my piece for this show, "The Ballad of Hamish Henry Densham" owes a similar debt to Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage's Artistic Director and the curator of this event. In the first instance this debt exists because if Lorne hadn't commissioned me, the piece would never have existed. But more substantially, it's because the day before I was first due to perform it, with 95% of everything I'd written so far being utter shit, Lorne and I had a good long chat.
Officially this meeting was an opportunity for me to read a fairly complete, perhaps even virtually performance-ready draft to Lorne, so that he could make a few suggestions and help me tidy it up. Instead what I had was a loose version of the story that ended up constituting the second half of the piece, so haphazardly written that instead of reading it to Lorne I instead put it aside and told him the story. Towards the end I broke off, because it was dreadful. And we had a long conversation about class and identity and about some of the places in me from where the instincts behind this story sprang. And Lorne said, tell the story, sure, it's a good story, but really you should talk about all that underlying stuff. After he'd gone I didn't move from my seat, I stayed put and wrote the whole thing in three hours. Some of the architecture remained from earlier drafts, and about a minute and a half's worth of actual text, but really, almost the whole thing was written out of the energy of that conversation.
And it was an enormous pleasure to perform. Terrifying in a number of ways, not least because it ends with a song and I'm not a singer. The second time I did it I was on after Cora Bisset, who, my word, really is
a singer. And, perhaps because there's a lot of honest personal material in there, on one early occasion I had the strange sensation of looking out at the audience and thinking why are all of these people sitting here listening to me talk?
But an enormous pleasure perhaps in part because of these fresh, unfamiliar terrors - an entirely different set of unfamiliar terrors to those involved in performing Oil Rig.
The second part of the evening was also a joy to be involved in. Every new guest artist added something quite different to the unfolding epic of the foundling, and each night a growing band of house artists of gathered to perform everything that had gone before. Performing other people's words - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
aside, and that's a whole other thing - is another unfamiliar terror, another unfamiliar pleasure to add to the store of pleasures with which I've been gifted this month. And while some guest artists beguiled and others bewildered, while some took the story in directions I found thrilling and others in directions I found tremendously problematic, this potential for internal wrangling was written into the rules of the game; indeed, it was written into the chorus
. The epic ballad was a shaggy dog story; the epic ballad was an argument; the epic ballad was internally inconsistent and yet it cohered into one messy, ragged, joyful, plaintive whole.
Lorne's avowed intent behind the event was to improve the quality of our collective confusion about the approaching referendum on Scottish independence. And last night at dinner on this artists' residency I'm on I found myself sitting next to a man who loudly and with no discernible doubt shared his opposition to independence. I didn't buy any of his arguments, if arguments they were, but he presented them with such brisk certainty - as facts, not as viewpoints - that it wasn't worth entering a debate with him. The yes camp with which I instinctively sympathise won't get anywhere with him; it's the undecideds where the debate will be lost or won. But more than any of this, I found myself thinking, I wish you'd come to The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project
. It might just have elevated the quality of your certainty into a recognition that such certainty is a horrible thing.
Even Kieran Hurley, the remarkable Kieran Hurley, whose own border ballad began with a direct avowal of his support for Scottish independence, then spent his fifteen minutes chewing over the complexities and difficulties of maintaining that support without ambiguity or doubt. The world is currently run by people who are certain. The world is currently ruined by people who are certain. Events like The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project
might just elevate the quality of all of our confusion until that confusion itself has the confidence of others' certainty.
One of the things I found most difficult in Kieran's piece was his statement that, in the event of Scottish independence, the thing that his English friends will struggle with most is the need to redefine Englishness in its light. I don't think of myself as English, I think of myself as British. I identify more with Glasgow than I do with London. Englishness, I instinctively feel, is of the centre. Britishness is inclusive of the margins. Englishness went to Eton, drinks Pimms, has leather sofas in wood-panelled rooms, and rules. Britishness drinks pints and marches in protest against the depredations wreaked by Englishness.
The trouble with this analysis is this: it's bollocks. (It's not an analysis at all.) Ask someone outside of England how they feel about Britishness and it's more likely to connote empire than solidarity between Clyde and Tyne. It's easy for an English person like me to wear Britishness as a badge of solidarity with the marginalised of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but actually Britishness, not Englishness, is why there are tanks in Belfast; Britishness, not Englishness, is the imaginary ideal to which unionists appeal when pro-independence campaigners like Kieran try to make proper arguments. I can have solidarity with my Scottish friends even if we don't live in the same country, perhaps more so once people like me are forced to stop pretending that we are all equal in Britishness. We aren't. Maybe these realisations will strengthen the English left. We've allowed Englishness to be claimed by and appealed to by the right. And for sure, patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel, but there's a history of struggle, of revolt that's far more deeply ingrained in English identity than Pimms or anything the EDL can come up with.
I'm not proud to be English. How could I be proud of an accident? But English I am, and these last few paragraphs have been my attempt to rise to the challenges of Lorne and Kieran, by raising the quality of my confusion on this point.
The enthusiastic, rambling formlessness of this blog post surely does more to sum up the joys of my Edinburgh festival than anything else could.
Given that I managed a measly ten hours sleep last night, after the far more respectable twelve to thirteen of the previous three nights, it begins to look as though I'm recovering from Edinburgh a little more quickly this year. Perhaps I'm getting better at it. Perhaps it helps that I'm living here for a week, with virtually no phone or internet.
It's also possible that I'm still recovering from Edinburgh last year. After The Price of Everything
finished a year ago, I had one day off and then went straight into three weeks making Ash
, the precursor version of what eventually turned into How to Occupy an Oil Rig
. Then term started and when I wasn't teaching undergraduates I was touring The Price of Everything
and when I wasn't doing that I was developing How to Occupy an Oil Rig
and Story Hunt
and when I wasn't doing that I was oh it's nearly September already.
So I'd like to write something taking stock of the month I've just had, when I could just as easily write something taking stock of the year I've just had. And what I've in fact written is a sort of loose diary taking stock of the month How to Occupy an Oil Rig
has had, in a few rather narrow contexts. I've talked a lot about process, very little about the show itself. Another time.
So. How to Occupy an Oil Rig
went well, very well, which it had little or no right to. It had predominantly four-star reviews with one or two either side of that. It sold well and sales improved day on day. It won an award. The spring tour is filling up.
It should have been a disaster. I say this in full knowledge of the fact that everyone always says this about every theatre show ever. Really. It had disaster written all over it. To start with, due to bereavements, illness and, you know, life, we started rehearsals far less prepared than was in any way ideal, with far more to do to get the material into shape than was in any feasible in a very short rehearsal process.
Let's be honest. The script, such as it was, was a fucking mess.
So it didn't help when four days into rehearsals our indefatigable director Dick Bonham was defatigated. Viz, went into hospital, with blood clots on both lungs. (He was finally to be discharged almost exactly an hour after we set off in the van for Edinburgh.) It's an unusual rehearsal process where you end a day's work by going to visit the director in hospital in order to tell him what you've been doing. And up to a point, there were things that we could do. There's plenty of work that a company of performers can do without an outside eye present. Sorry, directors, but it's true. Tone, rhythm, rapport, dynamic, these and other things were forged or strengthened in this surreal but strangely enjoyable few days.
There's also an awful lot that can't be done without a director, so after only a few more days we were in a stubbornly sealed jar of pickle, trying desperately to peer out, with absolutely no idea what the work we were making looked like. Thank then the stars, the skies and everything heavenly for Sarah Punshon, who was able to join us for the last few days, and take us through previews in Edinburgh. Without her insight, patience, wisdom and sheer determination we would have been in no shape at all. (I should mention at this point that Sarah Punshon also happens to be my wife. But when your substitute director has her CV
, you don't quibble about how you got her in the room.)
I'm particularly grateful for her dramaturgical bloody-mindedness. There was a point, the Sunday about three days before we left for Edinburgh, where we'd just done a work-in-progress showing in Leeds. It was a bloody mess, partly because we were under-rehearsed, partly because the structure of the show just wasn't working. As the author of the show, I knew it needed a lot of mending; as a performer I just wanted to get my feet on ground solid enough to get the hang of walking and more change was a terrifying idea. With infinite wisdom and infinite patience, Sarah kept the company working for hours, coaxing, cajoling and pushing us until we had a shape that began to look like a show.
The immense forbearance of Jack Bennett and Kathryn Beaumont, who appear alongside me in the show, was another of that evening's miracles. On the very first day of R+D in July of last year, before The Price of Everything
in Edinburgh, I'd warned them that I tend to keep rewriting until the very last minute and often beyond, and that the ways the show changes in front of an audience fuel its further development. But however forewarned, that was a tough evening. If I was them I'd have wept with the confusion and the mess of it all. I nearly wept myself. I love and admire them beyond measure for taking an increasingly heavy series of blows on the chin and not simply tossing the script in the air like so much confetti and marching out into the Leeds night. Cut the scene I just learned? Fine. Replace it with a whole new, yet to be written scene? No problem. Re-arrange all of that text just enough to make it completely different while retaining a ghost of sameness? Sure.
Without Sarah we'd never have had the ability to fix all of those problems that evening. Being in the same boat as Jack and Kathryn, I was all too aware of how mentally and physically shot they were after a tremendously tough week (it wasn't like we were doing nothing until Sarah turned up) and I would have settled for making more piecemeal changes more gradually. I also don't think I believed I had the intellectual energy to work through everything in such detail at that stage. But it turns out that Sarah was able to provide us, collectively, with that energy. Pizza helped, and fizzy drinks. But mostly it was Sarah.
There followed a few more days of rehearsal and re-rehearsal, during which the show remained by no means a fixed set of constants, but at least there was some
solid ground. In the van on the way up to Edinburgh we almost knew all the words. And by the time we opened, we at least gave an impression of knowing most of what we were doing. There then followed several long days during which we rehearsed before performing, had notes over lunch, then rehearsed for the rest of the day. First day off? Cancelled. Rehearsal.
Aside from that Sunday, incidentally, and despite the huge challenges, this was all tremendously enjoyable. I might have happily carried on rehearsing all day throughout the fringe. Instead, we kept the early morning call, but after the first few days we had to lose the afternoon. I had another show
to open. And a week after that, we had to lose the morning, too, so that I could open a third
Premiering a show in Edinburgh is playing for terribly high stakes - most of the press and industry who come to see your show will come to see it in this run, and if it's not ready, this run will be your lot. So one of the real pleasures of How to Occupy an Oil Rig
was feeling it grow and improve, becoming more reliable at producing its effects, take its audience on a consistent ride despite the threads of improvisation running through it. I had no idea, before the first performance, whether or not this would be a show I'd enjoy performing for a month. Unequivocally, it was, and it became more so. I can't wait for the tour. Given how the show grew in confidence, I can't help but feeling that, given the press came relatively early in the run, we got away with it a bit. Some of them were perhaps nicer than we, at that stage, deserved.
Jack and Kathryn were magnificent. I was adequate. This is in no way surprising, given that this is the first time I've appeared on stage alongside other people for something like twelve or thirteen years. One of the hoary maxims of acting is that all you need to do is remember the words and not bump into the furniture. Towards the end of the second or third performance I caught my head a proper crack on one of the side lights and spent the next couple of days sporting a magnificent shiner. As a director, I'm hugely admiring of those actors who get a note, ask whatever is necessary to assimilate its purpose, and then incorporate it into their performance without it ever needing to be discussed again. As Sarah observed more than once, I am not one of those performers. There are some things that I know I do well on stage - forming a rapport with an audience, for example, playing spontaneously with the present moment, perhaps even combining frivolity and seriousness. Reproducing similar effects, even similar text, reliably from day to day has not, hitherto, been one of those things. This show has been a tremendous learning experience for me as a performer, one that I hope was neither too obvious to the audience nor too irritating for my fellow performers.
So as a shape, as a set of experiences, as a journey if you like, as a set of rhythms and games and set pieces, I'm very happy with the show. There's still some work to be done on the ways it produces its meanings, some of which I think are still problematic, inaccurate or downright inconsistent. There's plenty I'm pleased with here, too - that a show consisting of three-quarters or more how-to demonstrations on forms of protest and direct political action has enjoyed any success at all feels ludicrously unlikely, that it's been very well attended and reviewed is downright daydream. Nevertheless, there's more to be had from it.
So sorry, Jack, sorry, Kathryn. Sorry Dan. No show is ever finished, it just stops getting booked.
I'm aware that this discussion of the material itself is perhaps the most potentially interesting bit for most readers, in a post that's otherwise a very late diary entry and little more. Sadly it's also the bit that requires the intellectual energy of someone more fully rested than I am. If I manage double figures in hours of sleep for a few more nights, then maybe next week. For now, here's a picture of the view from my bedroom window. A few more nights of this and never mind a discursive and thoughtful approach to the themes and content of my latest show, I might just write you a novel.*
* For those of you interested, I'm here,
where several other folk are writing actual novels.
There's a story parents on Teesside tell children about a wicked hag that lives in the Tees. Peg Powler grabs by the ankles children playing too close to the edge, drags them under, and drowns them. Then she feasts on their skin and flesh.
On 22nd November 1990 I was in the final year of primary school when the school secretary stuck her head round the door. "Mrs Price", she said, "Mrs Thatcher's resigned". And we all stood up and cheered. We scarcely knew who she was, or why we loathed her, but we knew, every one of us, that loathe her is what our mams and dads did, and we were delighted. People sang "ding dong the witch is dead" then, too.
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher came to Stockton-on-Tees and visited the site of Head Wrightson's newly demolished heavy engineering works. It had closed that June, despite only twenty years earlier employing over six thousand people and covering 68 acres, sprawling across the south bank of the Tees and creating a racket that could be heard the length of Stockton High Street. Not now. Thatcher's walk became known as her "walk in the wilderness". It was the moment she pledged herself to urban regeneration, and indeed the area became a business park. But Maggie seemed the whole time oblivious to the fact that her policies, not just the winds of change, were what meant it needed regenerating at all. Her sanctification of market forces produced the systematic destruction of our manufacturing industries - and of the communities that worked in them. That's what gave her a wilderness to walk in.
If you want a piece of drama to make me cry, all you need to do is stick in a bit about the miners' strike. Gets me every time. It's in the bones and the blood.
To this day, the image or the voice of Thatcher cause in me a physical horror. I can't be the only one who sees her face when hearing Peg Powler's name.
I'm working on Teesside at the moment, in my fancy middle class job making theatre. I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I'm actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton's once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project's having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project
I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.
Thatcher didn't do this. But it is done in her name.
So if you grew up in the north east in the 1980s - or before - you're unlikely to shed tears over the death of Maggie Thatcher. I feel no triumph, mind. I've no interest in dancing on her grave, not least because that's the sort of nasty vicious compassionless thing she'd have done. I can understand those who want to celebrate their community's survival of the woman who wanted to destroy it, but for myself, no. I'm not pleased. I was surprised on Monday to find that in fact I felt tremendously upset. I was reminded of Ralph at the end of Lord of the Flies, weeping at the end of his ordeal, weeping at his rescue, not before. He weeps "for the end of innocence, for the darkness in man's heart". He weeps because what he now knows makes this no rescue at all.
An old woman with a familiar name has died, but Maggie Thatcher is still in Government under a different name: rather, the same name with an ism at the end. Thatcherism is worse than Thatcher, more compassionless, more destructive. When that dies, then, then I'll dance. For now, Peg Powler is still lurking under the Tees, still grasping at children's ankles, still feasting on our skin and flesh.
- Turn it back on.
- I'm not looking at that
- It's Dermot Murnaghan.
- All these pictures of I'm not looking at that why do they need to show that?
- They have to.
- All those skinny naked people with their ribs and their stomachs and ugh?
- They have to show it.
- It's horrifying.
- Turn it back on.
- I'm not looking at it.
- You have to.
- I'm sorry I physically I can't look.
- It's your duty to look.
- Fuck off. My duty?
- If you don't look, that's you looking away isn't it?
That's you saying, this is ok,
I'm turning a blind eye to this,
I'm looking away.
You have to look at it.
- but it's horrifying
- Do you not see?
- What am I achieving by looking?
- You're confronting it.
- I'm not.
I'm getting used to it.
I'm making it normal.
If I look for long enough the holocaust will become ok.
If I look for long enough I won't care.
- Looking doesn't make it ok.
- The world needs more people who can't look.
- Turn it back on.
I haven't written much on here for a while, because I've been fighting with a much longer piece of prose writing. I'm going to put a bit of it up here in a day or so, to remind you I exist and occasionally do thinking. In the meantime, a thought on arts subsidy:
In Ancient Athens, theatre productions were largely funded by the state. The audiences, up to 14,000 strong, came for free. This was the production model of Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and Euripides.
The audiences had, for the most part, recently been on the stage themselves, in the opening of the Festival in which they were watching these plays. They'd been in one of a number of choral dithyrambs, singing and dancing to the same rhythms as the chorus in tragedy. So when they saw a chorus on stage in the tragedies, they knew what that felt like.
(The chorus in Greek tragedy is usually constituted of a gathering of citizens. Anyone who tells you you're meant to identify with Oedipus, or Medea, isn't paying attention. I'm looking at you, Aristocratle. Because really: as an audience member, you've got an embodied understanding of what it is to be the chorus, and you share a social identity with that chorus. And there they are, interrogating their political leaders.)
In Ancient Athens, theatre productions were largely funded by the state. The audiences, up to 14,000 strong, came for free. They had an embodied understanding of what it was to be in the chorus as they watch the extraordinary catastrophes befallen by their political leaders.
When you're told "they didn't need arts subsidies in Ancient Greece", know that this is a lie, and know for what purpose this lie is being told.
It will be familiar to anyone who writes, although the point of being a writer is that you'll all express it differently. Running up against a brick wall is perhaps the most commonly-re-circulated cliche. The masochists bang their heads against that brick wall. Others think of it as hammering on a locked door, or beating their fists against it. Or they're trapped in the car on a gridlocked motorway when they want to be Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I may have made that last one up. But the point is, there are as many images for stuckness as there are writers to get stuck. And hey, isn't it ridiculous that when we get stuck we try to generate imagery for the stuckness, rather than for whatever it is we're meant to be writing about? But stay with me, because there's a happy ending.
I don't ever think of it as "writer's block" and nor have I heard more than one or two writers I know describe it that way. Peculiarly, because what is that brick wall, that door, that gridlock - if not a block?
More, I'm allergic to public discussions of writer's block. They usually help propagate the myth that writers spend more time stuck, wringing our hands, drinking coffee, mucking about on twitter, than actually writing anything. They give the impression (by which I mean it gives me the impression) that writing happens in short magical bursts interrupted by long self-indulgent spells of just being stuck. Writing as waiting for a bus, a bus on which you go one stop then wait another hour for the next one. Such discussions make writing seem to involve exponentionally more time unable to write than anything else at all. This is mythology perpetuated by writers to make it look heroically difficult, like Prometheus more in his punishment than in his producing a spark. Admittedly, writing is really hard. But you're not getting your liver pecked out by crows. Get over yourself. It's as though somehow the struggle validates the result. It doesn't.
Yes, most writing happens slowly, but more often than not it happens. There is perpetual movement, usually slow, sometimes sporadic, but you're not pushing boulders uphill. It rarely hurts at all. You're writing! This is what you wanted to do all those years! Even when it's slow, enjoy it. I wrote the present sentence on my third swing through this post, and it's just a stupid blog post. Imagine how slow work can be on something that matters!
This sometimes slow, sometimes really slow work is then gradually assembled into a form calculated to give the impression of ease. This impression does as much to put off new writers as the myths of inspiration and interminable stuckness. When stuckness comes into the conversation, I tend to find myself thinking - or saying - work on a different bit, then. There's always something you can do. The only way to get over it is to get on with it.
I write this having yesterday become unstuck. Which always happens, eventually. It took CS Lewis eleven years to come up with a name for one of the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but he got there in the end. I'm sure he was busy with other things for some of that time, but still, eleven years. And then he kicked that motherfucking door down - and the result was Mr Tumnus. He was in no doubt it was worth the wait.
I think of these blockages as waters lapping against a dam. Wave upon wave surges up against the problem and the dam don't give a fuck. The volume of material builds until it can surely only be a matter of time before the dam yields. And yet nothing. Lap, lap, lap. Wall.
Because for me, at least, the real blockages are never at the level of individual scenes. With those I can simply write and re-write until something seems to work. More to the point, I work on scenes with others in the room, and there's a great pleasure in working and reworking material moment by moment and watching it take coherent shape. But the volume of material could build eternally without solving the real problems. We could submerge entire countries without shifting the dam.
No, the hard part is arranging the everything in such a way that it forms an elegant whole. In such a way that all those scenes and moments earn their place and make sense in the same show. I haven't yet found a way of working on this birds-eye view collectively that isn't hell for everyone involved. In the rehearsal room, we work from inside the material and inside an imaginary audience. The big problems need fixing from a distance, from outside. Yet in attempting to fix them alone, I still keep gushing up against the dam, when what I'm really trying to do is get far enough away to see the whole thing.
Since finishing the first draft of How To Occupy An Oil Rig, I've been in that formless tide for over three months. There are a few small things to fix. We can do those in the room. More to the point, the beginning and the end have a lot about them, but the middle is shit, both on its own terms and in terms of enabling the beginning and the end to have anything to do with one another. There's some material that needs to go into the beginning and some in other places, and there are some huge gaps to fill. And the structure as it stands doesn't come close to accommodating all of these changes.
The premiere is scheduled and although it's seven months away, it's on the wrong side of the dam, and who knows how long I'll be bobbing around over here? The terror is some way away, but there is still that voice, that unhelpful voice, that says "what if you don't ever get across?"
As far as I'm concerned the millions of books on writing and structure are there to help me when I'm stuck. I want to think of the show as architecture rather than bricks and I need to look at it from as far away as possible. But in this case they didn't. Most of them are the same anyway and I just end up looking at it from a succession of small variations on the same viewpoint.
Then yesterday I watched a piece of work with a particular awareness of its own structure. No, I'm not about to tell you what it was. I don't want you looking for it when you come see the show. (Not least because it isn't there.) But walking home, I saw my own structure from a new and unfamiliar angle, and the dam yielded. It didn't crumble. There was no destruction. It was simply removed, and the water surged forward unimpeded.
I walked up the hill making notes on my phone the whole way and stood on the front doorstep in the biting cold for five minutes finishing. Twenty minutes, to clear three months' resistance. Since then, relief. This can work. Maybe even this will work. I can write for two weeks and fix all the problems. I'm writing this post out of that burst of energy, because it's nearly the holidays and I'm going to Paris in an hour, then family family family. So I'm saving the pleasure of work until the New Year, knowing it to be do-able, more, waiting to be done.
A different part of my brain knows that when I do it I'll find plenty of new problems. But for now I'm headed for the coast, and it feels fucking great.
It's mandatory for 70% of blog posts to begin with an apology for their own recent paucity, so here goes. I promised myself I'd post at least twice a week while making the new show. At least three separate people have expressed an interest in following the process. Instead, I've been up at six every morning rewriting pages, or writing pages based on the work of the day before. We've worked until seven or eight, at which point a few emails, tea, then bed. I'd have done lots of useful thinking about ways of working as a writer within devised theatre if I'd any space left in my head. Sorry about that.
As it is, I've learned nothing that isn't in one of the two following categories: stuff we all already know, but didn't necessarily feel in our bones; and stuff that's useful only for making this show. Certainly, nothing that I can think about in sentences I'm prepared to publish. Instead I'm going to talk very briefly about titles, then maybe I'll have something more substantial to say once the show's open.
The new show, then, is subtitled How to Occupy an Oil Rig, and when its full, finished version goes out next year that will be its actual title. Publicity for this six-show preview run had to go out before we'd really figured out which show we were making, so at the moment it's still called Ash. This is a fine title, but it's not quite the right one. In my notes, The Price of Everything crops up repeatedly as Value and then as Milk before appearing as itself. It seems I work through from the subject, to a substance with some metaphorical weight in the piece, towards an actual title that relates somehow to form as well as content. I'd never have noticed this, but at two out of two, on recent form I'm dangerously close to developing a method.
Fortunately this is by no means apparent in the form of the work itself, which is in lots of ways totally different to The Price of Everything. There are three of us in it, for a start.
I find this process of generating titles unbearably difficult, so it made me laugh out loud when Erica Whyman, hearing the projected title for next year, said "you're really good at titles". I dread starting work a new show not because of the show (that's always exciting), but because of the title. It has to be somehow a promise of the piece, a bunch of grapes identifiable but just out of reach. Ash, I thought had that: it connotes so much. Too much, as it turns out, for the form of this work, which is explicitly a series of how-to demonstrations created or culled from various sources, juxtaposed to create or reveal narrative. The title needs to be flatter, less allusive, more mechanistic. The ashes of Ash are still in How to Occupy an Oil Rig's DNA, but this is an instruction manual, not a volume of poetry.
It's surprising how much poetry there is in the instructional form. How playful it can be, how various. How bizarre as well as banal. Put the words "how to" into YouTube (this is safe for work) and you'll see what I mean.
Because no-one reads the instruction manual. Maybe they would if it told them a story starring themselves.